Human Writes ….

12 Aug

A few years ago, Bic, the biro makers, were widely ridiculed when they advertised ‘a pen for her’, in pink of course, and apparently suitable for female hands. Now, Bic South Africa has apologised for, and deleted, an advert posted for South African national Women’s Day. It depicted a woman in a suit, smiling to camera, accompanied by the following text:

Look like a girl

Act like a lady

Think like a man

Work like a boss

What could possibly go wrong? … How this caption got past even the vaguest internal monitoring process remains a mystery – the cynic might suggest that Bic put the image out knowing exactly what attention it would garner – but is any publicity really good publicity? And why choose a day normally reserved for celebrating women’s achievements to suggest that anything but womanhood goes?

Because that’s the worst thing about this advert – that ‘girl’ ‘lady’ ‘man’ and ‘boss’ are all fine identities – but ‘woman’? Just not something you can routinely be in your successful life. ‘Woman’ , it would appear, is an attribute you have to cover up with other things in order to get by. I can barely be bothered with the ‘think like a man’ element of this – the element which seems to have garnered most comment – because all the arguments have been repeated so many times it’s tiresome. No, not all men are the same and neither are all women. It’s the other parts of the captioning that make matters even worse. We can’t even look like women or act like women, rather we need to strive for girlishness in appearance and be ladylike in our actions. How could this ever have been seen as an empowering message – as Bic claimed initially was their intention? Since when was looking like a girl empowering for women except in a rather objectifying and ageist way? Since when was acting ‘like a lady’ the passport to empowerment? The Merriam-Webster online definition of ‘ladylike’ is ‘polite and quiet in a way that has traditionally been considered suited to a woman’ – all the better to oppress you with, my dear … As for working like a boss, well the items seem to add up to the fact that this is not something ‘women’ do either.

And perhaps most depressingly of all, this thoughtless image for a Women’s Day campaign has been conjured up by a manufacturer of pens – pens, the very thing we use to communicate our thoughts and express ourselves. Perish the thought that a woman might write something powerful. Would the girlish loops of our handwriting and the ladylike decorum of our letters stand us in good stead? Not so. According to a recent experiment where an author sent the same script out to agents under respectively a man’s and a woman’s name, and got different results – the male bias of the prospective publisher would soon put paid to any silly ideas like that…. We really should know our limits, as drawn by the red line of a Bic biro, no doubt.




Does it matter that there is only one man on the Women and Equalities Select Committee?

5 Jul

A fair few column inches have been devoted to the fact that the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has ended up being entirely male and white. In our era this does look like a failure of representation, especially considering that representation in arts, media and sports could reasonably fall under the remit of that Committee. No wonder New Statesman’s Media Mole declared themselves too depressed to be funny….

Meanwhile, eyelids have not apparently batted at the make-up of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, which contains only one male MP – a newly-elected member of the House. Does this matter? Given the subject of this Committee’s business it is entirely appropriate for women to be in a majority. It would be crazy otherwise – but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed that only one man will be present – and that with the exception of Chair Maria Miller, all of the members are newly elected. I’m sure their credentials are admirable, but it does seem unusual that more seasoned MPs will not sit around this particular table. In the criticised Culture Committee, at least half of members were elected before 2015, and the Women and Equalities Committee is the only one I can find with members drawn exclusively from the latest intake.

The reason why this may be of concern is fear of what one might term ‘pinkbusification’. During the election the Labour Party decided to reconnect with female voters by taking a pink bus around the country to discuss women’s issue. As I wrote at the time, this strategy runs the danger of saying that there is a ‘politics for her’ – somehow separate from the mainstream of hard, manly issues. While the motivation may come from a place of respecting women’s views and experiences, the consequence of having a separate strategy for women may be to sideline their concerns all the more.

As for the Women and Equalities Committee, it would be great to think that it augurs a new commitment to bringing gender and equalities issues to the fore in Parliament. The case for this is made eloquently here by Prof. Sarah Childs, who sees it as an important part of a move towards a more gender-sensitive and publicly-responsive parliament. It is important to remember that the ‘Equalities’ element of the Committee’s work would include areas such as disability, race, sexuality and class inequalities, all of which affect men as well as women.

But by having no established male MPs on the committee it could be read that inequalities are not a big concern for the most powerful group in the land – the stale, male, pale majority of Parliament itself. That could potentially be an excuse to say ‘they’ have a Committee to address their concerns, rather than seeing the inequalities of life chances all around us as a crucial and central concern of those in power.

Of course as a scrutiny body the Women and Equalities Committee will have the same potential to influence as any other Committee – and there is no reason why its members will not do an excellent job. But the gender make-up of these Committees does say something of how individual political issues are viewed in Westminster and beyond. Of seven Committees (apart from Culture) where full membership has been announced, women are in the majority in Education and Women and Equalities, while Defence, Justice, Scottish Affairs, Northern Ireland, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs are all predominantly male- although the last has a female Chair. Women make up 22% of Select Committee Chairs, a little lower than female representation in Parliament which now stands at 29%. We are not yet in a world where gender goes unnoticed, or where the hierarchy of importance given to different issues is gender neutral. In the meantime it would be good to think that women and equalities really matter to the big beasts in politics – most of whom are still middle-aged men.






Scientists, we have a problem …

11 Jun

The comments of Sir Tim Hunt, Nobel laureate, at a lunch function at a science journalism conference in South Korea, have raised a storm of comment in response. Just in case you have missed his bon mots, he has asserted that the ‘trouble’ with ‘girls’ in the lab is that ‘you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them they cry’. Yes, he did say that, and then he kind of apologised, saying it was ‘joke’ but also that he did mean what he said. You see, ‘emotional entanglements’ (!) ‘disrupt’ science and he felt the need to underline that. His solution? Sex-segregated labs, so that men would not be distracted by women. At this point you do wish he was kidding. A half-hearted apology for saying ‘silly’ things in a room full of female journalists does not quite cut it.

As other commentators have already pointed out, a saving grace of the incident may be that it has laid bare an open secret. When it comes to sexism, science hierarchies have unfortunate form. A smattering of female Nobel laureates, this year’s Field medal in mathematics, and the exposure of cases where awards were given to men when it was women in the lab who deserved the credit, do plenty to disabuse any notion that what Hunt might refer to as ‘the fairer sex’ are not up to scientific excellence. But the persistent scarcity of women in science – especially in the highest echelons – tells its own story. Only 17% of professors in STEM in the UK are female. The response is often that this simply reflects the fact that women are less likely to study sciences and to proceed into the profession. This is true, but not to the extent that the low figures suggest.

The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a Fellow, has moved to distance itself from Hunt’s comments, saying that ‘science needs women’, but falling short in some eyes of repudiation of his remarks. The Society has had its own issues, having seen a fall in the number of Fellowships awarded to women under some recent schemes. Indeed, a recent investigation was launched to understand why only 2 of 43 early career University Research Fellowships were awarded to women in the last round – in previous years up to a third of awards went to women. The investigation was not able to pinpoint particular systemic reasons for the low number of awards to women, but a suite of initiatives to promote fellowships more actively to women scientists, and to train selection panels in issues relating to bias has been put in place. As I have blogged previously, unconscious bias has been identified – through systematic research no less – as an issue in recruitment and retention of scientists.

Perhaps Tim Hunt’s outburst might concentrate the collective mind on attitudes which may still affect women in science. After all, even Stephen Hawking declared women a ‘mystery’. It is incumbent on scientists now to ensure that the ‘problem’ of women in science is seen as a problem in the parts of the professional hierarchy, and not of women. Hunt’s idea that a ‘solution’ to the ‘distractions’ of women is to segregate them into labs of their own, is perhaps the most damaging of all. Women are not ‘the other’ – we are people working on equal terms to solve the problems of the world. And if that is not already actually the case, it is old men of science who have the problem.




30 hours free childcare – what could be simpler?

28 May

After years on the sidelines, childcare has finally arrived in the policy limelight. The Queen’s Speech confirmed that the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to double the offer of free hours of childcare for 3 and 4 years-olds – from 15 to 30 hours per week – will be put in a childcare bill. On the face of it, this is great news for families – so what’s the problem?

Well, in fact, there are a number of issues. Doubling the amount of free hours sounds simple, until you begin to think about who bears the cost of increased free provision. Many have pointed out previously that free hours of childcare are already under-funded, and yesterday the Pre-School Learning Alliance quoted independent research showing that this amounted to a shortfall of 20% on existing free hours of childcare. The solution for providers is therefore to raise the cost of paid-for hours, which means that parents may pay more for additional hours.

Moreover, the extra free hours are for 3 and 4 year olds, so that new parents are faced with some hard choices at the point at which post-birth leave runs out. If you are returning to work before your child is 3, you then have to come up with a set of arrangements to cover the period before the 30 hours of free provision kicks in. From 2013, 15 free hours of childcare has made available for 2 year-olds whose parents are in lower income groups, but if you are earn any more and/or need care before your child turns two, you have to pay. Stitching together affordable solutions – and possibly multiple local childcare services – is stressful and costly for everyone. If you are a lone parent this applies all the more. In the UK, parents bear amongst the highest childcare costs in Europe. So there is a case – as NCT have suggested – for devoting greater attention (and funds) to affordable provision for under-3s. Given that longer periods out of the workplace tend to be associated with greater loss of earnings long-term, this may make sense within the system as it is.

In the UK our childcare and early years provision is complex, with an array of State, voluntary sector and private providers to navigate. Much of the early years provision is good or outstanding, but it tends to be in better-off areas, and to be in maintained nurseries. So gaps in provision tend to occur where parents might need it most – in areas of deprivation and/or where quality voluntary- or private-sector provision may be scarce. These differences are not immediately solved by increasing the number of free hours available. Further, the additional hours are proposed in the absence of any overt consideration of quality of care; to what extent can we be sure that quality can be preserved as the free provision is increased?

Finally, there is an issue around the terms of the offer: to be eligible for the free 30 hours, all parents in the household have to be employed. In the Nordic countries, to which British policymakers often turn for inspiration, the system has historically rested on the assumption that all families use State-subsidised childcare. More equal employment rates for mothers and fathers follow. In the UK, the emphasis in terms of subsidised childcare provision is often on the employment status of parents. If we thought even more about the benefits of quality early years provision for all children, this could both open up more children’s opportunities, and make more affordable and sustainable childcare choices possible for parents, especially as they move into employment after taking leave.


The Other Euro-vision

24 May

As millions of Britons enthusiastically sat on the sofa for another Eurovision Song Contest, it occurred to me that our country does not often display similar attachment to other European institutions, and that one might well ask ‘What has Europe ever done for us?’ Perhaps part of the problem is that the Acts of the European Union have not had the services of their very own George Campey (yes, really). He was a BBC man who coined the term ‘Eurovision’ in the face of the preferred name ‘European Television Exchange’ – anyone who would vote for that option is clearly (straight) bananas …

So here’s a timely reminder of some things Europe has done for us – some unsexy Article names demonstrate a commitment to stuff important for us all :

The Treaty of Rome in 1957 (Article 119 EEC, then 141 EC, now Article 157 TFEU) equal pay for equal work

Treaty of Amsterdam in 1999, (Article 2 EC) the promotion of equality between men and women became one of the essential tasks of the European Community

Lisbon Treaty (Article 2 TEU), gender equality can be used as a yardstick for determining whether a European state can be a candidate for accession.

EU legislation (Directive 92/85/EEC), all women in the EU have the right to at least 14 weeks maternity leave and to protection from dismissal for being pregnant.

Directive 2006/54/EC on EU rules on equal treatment for women and men in employment addressing different elements of the equal pay principle (IP/13/1227)

The Working Time Directive, 2003/88/EC, is a Directive of the European Union. It gives EU workers the right to a minimum number of holidays each year, rest breaks, and rest of at least 11 hours in any 24 hours; restricts excessive night work; a day off after a week’s work; and provides for a right to work no more than 48 hours per week

And the wonk in Wonklifebalance has to direct your attention to all those programmes which fund research in our Universities and generate much of the evidence we need:

Oh and finally, Europe stands up for our rights – and that gets my vote:

‘The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) (formally the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms) is an international treaty to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe. Drafted in 1950 by the then newly formed Council of Europe, the convention entered into force on 3 September 1953. All Council of Europe member states are party to the Convention and new members are expected to ratify the convention at the earliest opportunity.’

All in all it’s a case of Brexit, nul points …..




#GE2015: The Audacity of ‘Nope’

26 Apr

Something strange has been going on in the UK’s electoral politics. In what is predicted to be the closest (i.e. the most unpredictable) election in years, we’ve had a set of campaigns which have often seemed uninspiring at best. The tedium of two major parties deadlocked in the polls, and appealing to voters by appearing as like their opposition as they can be – rather than standing up for their own vision – has been enough to discourage even a ‘political obsessive’ like myself. Even more discouraging, the term ‘political obsessive’ sometimes elides closely with ‘has read a newspaper in the last fortnight’ – the closeness of the projected result has not yet produced a picture of mass engagement or a shift towards a decisive result ….

Back in the early 2000s Obama offered his voters the ‘audacity of hope’ and ended up becoming President against the odds. He had a coherent vision of the future – even if reality fell short. In Britain in 2015 the audacity of our politicians is to simply offer ‘Nope’ in answer to key questions on which we could make an informed choice. Will the Conservatives tell us how they will distribute £12 billion of welfare cuts to people of working age – many of whom struggle in low-paid jobs? ‘Nope’. Will the Labour party say exactly how much it will borrow to stimulate investment? ‘Nope’. It is as if these details don’t matter – but how we make a fully informed choice without them? The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has asserted that the public is effectively ‘in the dark’ when it comes to where cuts will fall in reality.

Why is this the case? Well, that old mantra ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ has swallowed the political space, as Britain struggles to muster a decent recovery from years of austerity following the financial crash. The fine detail of how each party’s economic plan will work in practice has not been revealed.

The Tories justify their position by saying their ‘track record’ shows that they can grow the economy and make cuts – but the low-hanging fruit has been picked now and it’s things like child benefit and housing benefit – vital to low-income families – which are left. It really does matter where these cuts fall. As it does for cuts to unprotected government departments, many of which have been heavily cut already, and which deal with such trifles as higher education and justice to name but two.

Meanwhile, Labour argues that borrowing for investment will pay for itself through growth – no precise figures attached. And the ‘mansion tax’ will pay for some of Labour’s proposals, but how the housing stock in question will be valued (at what cost) remains unclear – in a country where the property banding values underlying council tax have not been reviewed for decades.

And the politicians and media spend inordinate time on discussing the ‘perils’ of electoral arithmetic represented by various possible multi-party options for minority governments or (whisper it) a future coalition. While the polls show that neither main party is likely to get a majority, neither of them can admit this until it happens. So we are stuck in a place where democracy has become a stick with which to beat the electorate – ‘don’t vote for an illegitimate government’ – that is a government which represents the pattern of your votes across parties in our particular political system…

And I cannot remember another election in which so many important issues have been overlooked – has there been any meaningful discussion of relations with Europe? ‘Nope’; of low productivity, ‘Nope’; of household debt ‘Nope’; of where to build affordable housing ‘Nope’; of how technology is impacting on the labour market and wider society? ‘Nope’; of social care? ‘Nope’; of climate change? ‘Nope’… the list goes on, in what seems to become a ‘Vote now, think later’ strategy based on a narrowing of view rather than a far horizon. Perhaps the real audacity of this strategy is that our leaders calculate they can get away with it, because they reckon many aren’t listening any more. So back to social media for a diet of photoshopped political superheroes and pictures of cats urging us to vote – well, it’s a vision of something …. I will cast my vote to symbolise the hope for something more.



Hillary Clinton stands …

13 Apr

Hillary Clinton’s bid for the US presidency is a cause for celebration for everyone who wants to see a woman lead the most powerful country in the world. Should she eventually triumph, it would be a big deal for gender politics worldwide and for the prospects of women in politics in her own country and beyond.

However, Hillary Clinton’s strengths as a candidate are also potential weaknesses – her massive reach and name recognition comes from her longstanding involvement in politics – as her husband’s First Lady, as senator, and as Obama’s Secretary of State – no-one can say that she lacks qualifications or experience for office, or exposure. But of course this history means that there are going to be people who have developed negative views of her, as well as the many who pledge their support.

And while the prospect of America’s first woman president would be a major symbol of women’s progress and progressive politics, the fact that Hillary Clinton is so much one of the political elite counts in the opposite direction. It is not unproblematic for the land of the American Dream that the 2016 race could end up being contested by Hillary, the wife of one former president, and a Republican who is the son and brother of two others (Jeb Bush). But then, who else is going to raise the eye-watering amounts of money required for the campaign? Young radicals may have difficulty getting hold of in excess of $1 billion in funding. This is a systemic problem which all candidates face.

The signal way of bridging the gap between the world of privilege that enables candidates to run, and the everyday world of voters, is through policies which impact on people’s lives. And while the woman in me is pleased that Hillary Clinton is standing, the wonk has yet to see what she’s standing for. There is no policy detail in the campaign as yet – although the idea of being champion for everyday Americans hints in a progressive direction. It’s time for Hillary Clinton to show her voters the money.


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